Shyamalan Week: BAM Best Picture Profile – The Sixth Sense

Introduction

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

Here’s another one where I’ve decided on a different tact as opposed to the pre-existing text I’d written. I don’t recall what the assignment was but I originally wrote a comparison between The Sixth Sense and American Beauty as they were best picture nominees. I’ve decided to edit that such that I only discuss The Sixth Sense and why it won the BAM Award for Best Picture of 1999. As I recently stated in the site’s first official piece on Django Unchained all the Best Picture winners should have write-ups and to that end, those that do not yet will get their due in December. However, since I decided to focus on the work of M. Night Shyamalan this week, I may as well post it now.

Overly-Cautious Warning: If you’ve never seen this film stop what you’re doing right now and go see it. I do spoil it eventually in this analysis.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

When I first saw the trailer to The Sixth Sense I knew I wanted to see it. I thought it was going to be one of “My Movies,” meaning no one but me would like it. There was a sneak preview a week before the nationwide release. My family and I got our tickets early via Moviefone. Thank goodness we did because there were many people walking up to the box office wanting to see it and being turned away because it was sold out. That was a good sign.

The film spent five weeks at #1 at the box office. I then started to hear the Oscar buzz stirring. After the Golden Globes and SAG Awards it didn’t seem likely it would do much at the Oscars. It didn’t. That doesn’t make it right, though. However, that’s why I had started the BAM Awards in the first place.

The Sixth Sense starts slowly but builds upon detail, one thing that give it a boost is amazing ensemble acting. The role of Cole’s mother is played by Toni Collette, an Australian actress. She had her Philly accent down so well I believed it was authentic at the time. She’s a very caring, playful mother but there’s also anger, fear and worry in her performance.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

If you want character development this film is definitely for you, it’s not a concept-only piece. It has a strong and fairly high concept, but there is a lot of character to it. You are thrown into the life of Malcolm Crow (Bruce Willis) immediately. There is a confrontation in the first few minutes. This confrontation ends up being pivotal in the rest of the story. Then a year later he meets a boy named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). From that moment forward there is rarely a moment when one of them isn’t on screen.

Films of a supernatural nature like this one often have underlying messages and present real questions. These movies, like horror fiction, are generally frowned upon. This may be another reason it didn’t win at the Oscars. If that’s so, it’s not justified.

In my estimation, Haley Joel Osment is not a supporting actor in this movie, he is the lead. Just like Joseph Cross wasn’t a supporting actor in Shyamalan’s previous film Wide Awake. Bruce Willis like Rosie O’Donnell prior sold the film. While Crow starts and ends the movie, a vast majority of it is dealing with Cole and his issues. You can argue Crow is a lead based on perspective, but if you’re talking screen time and, more importantly, who faces and ultimately overcomes their obstacles it’s Cole.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

Osment’s performance is incredible. The best acting is when you believe it’s happening and he sold it to you and you bought it because it’s real. He’s genuinely afraid. He’s shy and awkward when necessary and his suffering reaches off screen and wrenches your guts. In one scene when the thermostat drops and his breath vaporizes, I felt cold. Osment’s performance would not have been so amazing if not for the brilliant script. The script is nearly Hitchcockian in both its detail and the way Shyamalan is seemingly tossing elements up and plucking them down at exactly the right moment. The ways Shyamalan got everyone to believe Bruce Willis was alive then allowing hindsight to show he definitely wasn’t is both amazing writing and directing.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

The Sixth Sense has subplots, even aside from the obvious ones which are the tales of the spirits that Cole sees. One example is the characterization of a secondary player: Tommy Tommasimo, played by Trevor Morgan, isn’t just a bully. His performance is typical of a bully when it has to be, but in his character’s cough syrup commercial it’s commercial acting and satirical. It also gives the audience good comic relief. Tommy in the end of his narrative is comedic and dejected. He becomes and inside joke between Cole and Malcolm. Another storytelling interlude goes as follows: In a classroom scene where the school grounds were the sight of hangings. His teacher denies the fact. Then Cole starts to yell calling him by his boyhood nickname. It’s very intense and serves as momentary comic relief as well. We empathize with Cole for it, and who wouldn’t want to know their teacher was called ‘Stuttering Stanley’? We see the hanged bodies later and perceptive viewers are awed, those who miss the connection will be frightened regardless. It works on two levels.

That’s what most of the brilliance of the script and the film is: connection. Cole’s mother is cleaning and she notices some spots shining in the pictures. All we see her do is questioningly look at it. Later, when Cole tells her his secret she believes him deep down. The proof is given after. That too is a subplot. It’s a movie of such intricacies but it works because of its intimacy. There aren’t too many characters in it. The movie deals realistically with the supernatural. There is a psychologist involved with the boy. Cole at one point is in the hospital and the doctor questions his mother about the bruises on his body. This is a societal critique, but a subdued one and a welcome one. Both her and the therapist are in the room and disgusted by these accusations. They don’t see each other. We don’t know that though.

The crumbling marriage of Malcolm Crow is also a pivotal part of the puzzle. This also works brilliantly as an illusion. The best illusions are the ones we believe to be true. He and his wife never speak to each other anymore. She is with another man and Malcolm never quite chases him down. What’s crucial is when Malcolm comes to the restaurant late. She signs the check says “Happy anniversary” and leaves. This is so key because we think she is talking to him. She wasn’t and what’s best is the way all the pieces fit together and nothing is really out of place.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

The film also expertly foreshadows after re-viewing The Sixth Sense you see how it was set up all the way through the movie and you wonder how everyone took the bait, but we did. The ending was a shock. Nothing in The Sixth Sense seems forced or out of place. It all comes together in the end and it moves me. Cole asks, “Grandma says the answer is ‘everyday.’ What’s the question, Mama?” His mom is on the brink of tears and puts her hand on her chest, “Do I make her proud?” This is something we can all identify with. I got teary-eyed just thinking about it. I went to see it again with my cousins in Brazil. They all loved it. It’s truly a universal movie and now fourteen years on this films has not waned in my eyes, not in the slightest. It’s tremendous.

The Awards

The Sixth Sense was nominated for 10 BAM Awards, and won seven.

The wins were in the following categories:

Best Picture

Best Director

Best ActorHaley Joel Osment

Best Performance by a Child Actor – Haley Joel Osment

Best Supporting Actress – Toni Collette

Best Score – James Newton Howard

Best Cast

The Other Nominations were for:

Best Original Screenplay – M. Night Shyamalan

Best Cinematography – Tak Fujimoto

Best Supporting Actor – Bruce Willis

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Shyamalan Week: Things Worth Discussing

What I had wanted to do with this series of posts initially was dust off some old posts that had not yet seen their moment on this blog. That’s easy enough to do when your topic is immutable and not really on a current event. A fictitious conversation among myself, Hitchcock and Truffaut that I created after having read their series of interviews or my interpretation on the role Catholicism plays in Fellini’s 8 1/2 aren’t going to become less relevant in a few years time. A post I wrote, however, calling out a question M. Night Shyamalan was asked when doing press in Mexico for The Last Airbender kind of does.

If you want you can look for it, but my point in a nutshell is the phrasing of the question was leading, trying to get headlines and it received a much better response than it deserved. I wrote it mostly because the reporter seemed to be getting a pass and nothing said on that end was questioned. While perspective may have strengthened or weakened some of my points, it’s all past now.

The one line of the piece that really stuck out, in part because I had just read something similar, was a thought I didn’t think had occurred to me:

The bottom line is: We love movies. We write about them, we watch them and make them. If there weren’t M. Nights around making things at least worth discussing what would the there be? Nothing. So regardless of your opinion of his films as a whole, especially the more recent ones, let us not trash the man in all he does…

After Earth (2013, Sony)

I then finish speaking very specifically about the reporter incident so this is the only part of the conversation pertinent today. However, it is a significant one. The point I allude to is beyond a good/bad subjective interpretation. The fact of the matter is very rarely these days will you go to the multiplex and be shown something that causes any kind of discussion, much less debate. I kind of skirted around this when discussing post-movie conversations. However, what I didn’t address is that few of the movies we see even give you reason to talk at any length about them.

I also don’t think this is entirely the fault of the news cycle in film, which usually has little tolerance for the movie out this weekend but glorifies the teaser of the full trailer that’s going to drop next Tuesday. More often than not Shyamalan, whether you be a devotee, someone longing for him to do something amazing again or a skeptic; has left you with something to talk about. Even if he did break from his twisting ways there’s still a bit of “Wait, what?” to most of his films. Which is saying something because far too often we not only know too much going into a film but we also don’t get the unexpected nearly enough.

You can get milquetoast anywhere. You can get it in at least one major release 52 weeks a year. Whether it hits or misses, I’d much prefer a brash attempt to do something. Many people didn’t bother to see Cloud Atlas. It wasn’t in my Top 25 but one thing I could not get over was how much I loved the audacity of that movie. It was a hard sell but it seemed to be exactly what people always seem to say they want: something different. However, then different comes knocking and where are they all?

With so much cinema being use-once-and-destroy anyone who can consistently refuse to be ignored is worth taking note of. I haven’t seen much in the After Earth trailers and teasers that make it look as if it’s unlike anything I’ve seen. However, the fact that there were no advance screenings until the night before the soft open Thursday night shows, and as of this evening Rotten Tomatoes had no registered opinions on either side give me some hope that there’s something they’re sitting on that’s pretty good fodder at the very least, that stands out, even if it doesn’t quite hit as well as it wants to.

Shyamalan Week: Village Building

Introduction

With After Earth being released this week it struck me that the timing was good to revisit not only some of M. Night Shyamalan‘s films but also some old pieces I wrote about him or his works that have not yet made their way over to this site.

This piece, however, is new and the thoughts occurred to me upon revisiting The Village.

Note: If you have not seen The Village or Shutter Island you are advised not to read on as there are spoilers.

Pre-Life

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

There are times when I truly wish films could be viewed in a vacuum of information. This is why, aside from ambience and picture size, at times, finding something on television can be one of the purest film-watching experiences on a narrative level. You come around to something, it catches your eye, you watch it; and if it’s in the middle, you figure out what it’s about as you go. Granted, that was far more possible before onscreen program guides and DVRs.

I say this to add a different perspective to my frequently discussed notion of films having a pre-life. You invariably learn what they purport to be about and are influenced in your decision-making process by the synopsis, the trailer and other writings you may see. In a way taking a film-only approach is an exercise in re-training your thinking.

More often than not I too am watching films at the multiplex and I will see the trailers, often many times, so I try not to focus too much on what I see there because it’s marketing. Things will be cut together a certain way to sell it but they have no bearing on the film itself.

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

That’s a very roundabout introduction to The Village because I will admit I was not an early adopter. I was not one who was immediately upon seeing it going to scribble a comment somewhere saying how much I enjoyed it and cap it off with an emphatic “FIRST!”

What immediately occurred to me was that I likely needed to see it again to see how well it did what it attempted, but for whatever reason I never did. Wanting to re-view something is always a good thing. It doesn’t always make a film better or worse, but it is a boon to that film that it compelled you to do so.

However, perhaps more so than The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, this one needed re-examination because it subverted expectations in a few ways, and when I say expectations I mean those instilled by the way the narrative is constructed rather than those of the advertisements. It’s hard in a trailer to convey the sense of the outre with which the villagers treat the outside, the pain they bear, the fact that you always think there’s something looming. What is tangible is the creature, so that was oversold, but once the credits roll it has no bearing on the film.

Village Building

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

The film begins in a slightly unorthodox manner in as much as the opening montage comprised of shots that go around town introduce us to certain characters, but not necessarily who we expect to see first. Typically, you’re hard-pressed to avoid starting with your protagonist as it can be disorienting. However, the film is called The Village and to figure out what’s behind the veil, you have to have an understanding of how this cloistered society works. That actually slowly unravels throughout as needed, but the basics are gotten out of the way as we begin to get a better sense of who the key figures are.

So we as audience members start off not only a little disoriented, but what is key is that throughout the telling of the film (for a great majority of it, in fact) we see the world as they do. We never seem to know something that they do not until the very end. So we view the creature like they do much of the time, as a tangible threat.

Even the way the creature is removed as a threat is done in a slightly unorthodox way. At a few late stages we come across things that don’t make sense to us or to the character confronted with it, we frame around with what lead to said falsity being introduced, and then work our way back to the present.

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

A few axioms come to mind when thinking of these decisions that do support it as being a bit closer to the norm: first, start your story as late as possible. “A group of people so scarred by traumatic experiences in their life that they decide to form their own secretive utopian society” doesn’t quite gel as a story, unless, in the attempt to form the society something goes awry. That something would likely serve as commentary on society in general. However, pushing that narrative later in the game this film presumes that these people succeeded and then asks instead: “What if such a society was already in place? What would they do to keep themselves isolated, to shield themselves; and assuming they successfully isolated themselves, how would they handle the possibility that they might one day need to leave their safe zone?” The film has interesting and creative answers to all these things. It does require suspension of disbelief, but given that this is the only world their children have ever known I find it easy enough to accept, especially considering the elders are secret-keepers who know the entire truth and for all we know may have surreptitiously left prior, if necessary.

The second axiom is one I actually thought of with regard to chronology. Sometimes when you get close too something a simple question can stump you. I recall my father complained about a film not being in chronological order. He asked something to the extent of “Why would you do that?” With so simply posed a question can be hard to articulate an answer. When you think about it the rule could read: “Narratives should be told in chronological order unless there is an imperative that necessitates the rearranging of chronology.” In other words, the revelations in The Village (this applies mainly to the three biggest ones) are elevated by the fact that when something that doesn’t make sense is seen the film does an about face to demystify what we just saw, and allows it to sink in a bit.

Another instance that can be troubling for some, and it was for me at first also, is the very end. Now, the first time I saw The Sixth Sense I honestly fell for it hook, line and sinker such that it was about midway through the credits before I realized “Yes, it probably did work without any cheats.” It was upon re-viewing it that I noticed things like the lack of responses in supposed conversations between Malcolm and his wife, or the fact that Malcolm and Cole’s mother never looked at each other, and she never reacts to him, even though they are sometimes in the same room. In The Village there is no oomph right at the very end there is a settling in to a new reality and new possibilities; all the reveals are through.

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

However, what Shyamalan does here is again playing with perception quite well. We accept the reality we are presented with onscreen almost without question such that when we see this film with its wide shots of a rustic village nestled in the woods, peasant attire of a bygone era, kerosene lanterns and torches; we think “period piece,” though nothing ever stated it was. People speak in antiquated fashion, but it seems a bit forced to the elders. When you come back to it you hear more clues than you ever saw and the visual indicators early on, namely the mysterious downward pans, are fairly apparent. In one of the first lines of the film, for example, the very carefully chosen words spoken by William Hurt’s character are “we settled here.” Settling has a colonial invocation, or at the latest hearkens back to the frontier days when new areas of the country really were being settled. Subtle things like that throughout sell you on the fact that the setting is not in modern times, yet just as many things that aren’t as quickly caught, like the way certain stories are told, indicate otherwise.

Kingian Location

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

I cannot take credit for this notion but comparisons started popping up early in this era between Shyamalan and the works of Stephen King, namely the early works. They could be seen as broad: suspense, mystery and fright found in the mundane, but there’s also a world-building deeply entrenched in location. That is why I think the comparison gets made. Many of Stephen King’s stories don’t even happen if he’s not born and raised in Maine. I know in the foreword of one of his books he discusses the genesis of ideas. Sometimes you remember them, sometimes you don’t. It was a vivid one from him from taking walks on a rickety, wooden bridge. Similarly, I’m not sure M. Night Shyamalan ever has an idea about an insular community that shuns the outside world if he’s not from Pennsylavania and riffing on what already exists nearby, namely the Amish and Mennonite communities. Within the framework of the story the state they are in is never mentioned. However, those communities are known the nation over so I connected that fact before I even migrated it to thinking about Shyamalan creating the story.

This location-based storytelling of his early career combined with a propensity for tales that go to darker places, if not necessarily in the horror genre, make the comparison somewhat apt indeed.

Conclusion

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

The misdirection isn’t completely impeccable and some things need to be taken on faith, but I think the reason Night’s other “twist” films never had the resonance The Sixth Sense did has nothing to do with his ability to cloak what’s really going on. I think quite a bit of it has to do with the nature of the reversal. The twist in The Sixth Sense takes one character from one state of being to another. The power of the reveal in Unbreakable is that that you could either laugh off Elijah’s theory as nonsense or you can agree with it. That is what makes the prospect of a sequel to that film so tantalizing.

While here we went from thinking we were dealing with some kind of period piece with a creature involved to realizing that what we had were deeply hurt people who couldn’t cope with the outside world and created elaborate ruses and arrangements to keep themselves tucked away. We not only discover there is no creature, but the twist (one of them) deals with the setting, with when the story is taking place, which makes it a gutsy move whether you like it or not. It is a very jarring reversal, which is why it left a little ambivalent at first. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it’s gutsy move.

Twists, really big reversals of perception and plot, are hard to deal with consistently. More than most things it seems to go on a case-by-case basis. I’ve argued on some that didn’t work for me about the story hinging on the twist, but that’s a little vague. Twists a dangerous game, but one thing The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs (to an extent) and The Village did was build to them. The shocking thing about The Village is that it does blindside you, Unbreakable does to an extent. So it is one of those that hinges on the twist, however, builds from there and has a series of reveals. So it may seem it has it all riding on one trick like say Shutter Island, but it doesn’t alter reality just the audience’s perception of it. It doesn’t play something like the schizophrenia card, which is hit-or-miss.

The Village (2004, Touchstone)

Moreover, the fact that this is a cloistered community in modern times, that there is no monster, and how they set this place up (to an extent) are dealt with prior to the last scene. The last scene leaves one question unanswered: Will these people continue living this way? They have their cover story should they choose to, whether they do or not remains to be seen. And whether they do or not marks the beginning of another movie. This one is over. It may feel like an off-balance ending after all the other times the equilibrium of things was messed with, but it does work for the tale that preceded it.

Shyamalan Week: The Spiritual Trilogy

Introduction

With After Earth being released this week it struck me that the timing was good to revisit not only some of M. Night Shyamalan‘s films but also some old pieces I wrote about him or his works that have not yet made their way over to this site.

This particular piece is brand new, however, and the thought occurred to me after having revisited Wide Awake/em>.

Wide Awake and The Spiritual Trilogy

Wide Awake (1998, Miramax)

Wide Awake was released in in 1998, and was a film I was looking forward to seeing at the time. This was based on both the trailer and the fact that I was a fan of Rosie O’Donnell’s at the time (Granted her involvement was slightly oversold, but that’s marketing). Indie films, even ones distributed by Miramax, were not as easy for me to get a hold of so it had to wait until its home video release, but I recall being very taken with the film then. I had not revisited it many times since but still had fond memories of it.

Wide Awake garnered 7 BAM Award nominations, which are my personal year-end picks. Mind you that M. Night Shyamalan would not be a director I knew anything about, or someone most people knew, until The Sixth Sense took off; it was just a reaction to what I saw, no hype, nothing.

Wide Awake is about a grade school boy (Joseph Cross) not only coping with the loss of his grandfather but dealing with very big questions because of it. He is concerned for the fate of this grandfather’s immortal soul, questions his own religion, the existence of God and more things that are not usually the purview of one so young.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

With The Sixth Sense Shyamalan takes a turn towards the supernatural but many of the same answers are being searched for by the young protagonist. Cole Sear, played by Haley Joel Osment, the protagonist of The Sixth Sense has this unique ability to see the dead, he doesn’t know what they want, why they come to him, why they won’t leave him be and what it all means. All he knows for sure is that he’s terrified and trying to understand what the meaning of death is and by inference the meaning of life.

Moving Forward

Praying with Anger (1992, Cinevista)

For many who seek to trace the career of Shyamalan they erroneously trace it back just to The Sixth Sense. However, even my analysis will only go so far. I can assert through an educated guess that The Sixth Sense closes out a thematic trilogy, a period of work Shyamalan had not unlike a painter. His first feature Praying with Anger was filmed in India while he was still an undergraduate.

According to the synopsis it tells the tale of an “Alienated, Americanized teenager of East Indian heritage sent back to India where he discovers not only his roots but a lot about himself.” Praying with Anger has never been readily available on video in the US, or at least it hasn’t been for some time, though it does seem it had one week in one theater in 1992. Myself and many others have been unable to see it, and that is probably by design, it seems rather clear that there was a spiritual, soul-searching phase that kicked off Shyamalan’s career.

The next phase wherein he discussed wanting to make what amounted to feature-length Twilight Zone episodes, would spin-off from The Sixth Sense, but the that film stands a bit apart from the others. Interestingly, while it caps the first theme it also acts as a transitional film to the titles that come. If one is to look at the next three films (Unbreakable, Signs and The Village) there are certainly more commonalities in those three films when removing The Sixth Sense from that grouping.

The Sixth Sense (1999, Touchstone Pictures)

This phase notion is one I never really considered, but what I do know is that it can get you pegged. It turns out that the similarities that The Sixth Sense did bear with the next three set some people up. However, I recently mentioned that one of the pitfalls of auteur criticism is just that. You expect things too readily and I never even thought of grouping his first three films. Steven Spielberg tried to dodge pidgeonholes people tried to keep him in for as long as he could. He attempted to avoid films too similar to one another back-to-back until later on in his career with two straight dramas (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun) or his dark futures (A.I. and Minority Report). Yet, even he had associations dog him. Aliens, for example.

I’m not comparing the two filmmakers, but rather finding one point of comparison: both broke through with a massive hit at a young age that put them under the microscope. Both Shyamalan and Spielberg have had their missteps and their big early hits, and both have had to contend with people attempting to define them. One of the things that Spielberg benefitted from is that he was at the vanguard of director-as-star. With Shyamalan it was an accepted notion that he was lumped into due to his being the creative force behind a worldwide box office smash.

Conclusion

Wide Awake (1998, Miramax)

Essentially, what I am seeking in this series of writings is to merely examine the works more closely. I am not writing a persuasive essay. His films don’t work for some and that’s fine, but I am also not coming from an over-rationalizing fanboy’s perspective either. I later on connected Wide Awake and The Sixth Sense. All I knew about The Sixth Sense as it was looming was that it looked good and I wanted to see it. After I had I recognized that name in the credits, and checked the IMDb. So in some ways I was a lot like other people discovering who he was and what his voice at the time was. I just already had a track record with his work is all.

Essentially, if you’re going to look at the trajectory of his career his first three films, the actual first three films and I believe have to be looked at as one unit. Call it a cinematic coming-of-age if you will. In the next three he’s exploring a particular milieu and genre. From that point on he’s been branching out and we will get to those in due course.

Children in Films Blogathon: A Revisionist Look at the Juvenile Award

When I learned of the Child Actor Blogathon at Comet Over Hollywood, I had two ideas for it almost right away: the Jackie Searl spotlight and this one. Not too long ago I argued for why the Juvenile Award should be re-instated. In this post I will follow up on that notion to augment my case. It’s one thing to quickly cite who won while it was around and state it never should have left, it’s quite another to show you who would have had they never gotten rid of it. Now I have decided to illustrate that in three ways, including some omissions found when it was instated (it’ll make more sense when we get there, trust me). First, I will list the young actors who since the end of the award (after 1961) were nominated for an Academy Award.

These actors obviously, had there still been a Juvenile Award, would have won that. While on occasion they were awarded the prize, more often than not they didn’t have a realistic chance. Regardless, their nomination was deemed prize enough it would seem, but I disagree and as you will see there have been plenty of instances where the Juvenile award could have been handed out either in addition to or in place of the nomination.

Based on Academy Award nominations from 1961-Present:

Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Fox Searchlight)

2012 Quvenzhané Wallis Beasts of the Southern Wild
2010 Hailee Steinfeld True Grit
2007 Saoirse Ronan Atonement
2006 Abigail Breslin Little Miss Sunshine
2002 Keisha Castle-Hughes Whale Rider
1999 Haley Joel Osment The Sixth Sense
1993 Anna Paquin The Piano
1979 Justin Henry Kramer vs. Kramer
1977 Quinn Cummings The Goodbye Girl
1976 Jodie Foster Taxi Driver
1973 Tatum O’ Neal Paper Moon
1968 Jack Wild Oliver!
1962 Patty Duke The Miracle Worker
Mary Badham To Kill a Mockingbird

Personal Selections

Super 8 (2011, Paramount)

In 1996, when I was 15 and the young actors of the day where my contemporaries, I started making my own award lists. Being young myself at the time I wanted to recognize young actors where most awards excluded them more often than not. These selections reflect those that were my among my BAM award selections that were eligible and the Academy bypassed. Prior to 1996, I thought of significant performances that were worthy of noting and would’ve had a strong case for the Juvenile Award had it been around.

2012 Rick Lens Kauwboy

This one is highly unlikely as Kauwboy wasn’t shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film prize. However, the fact that it was the official selection for The Netherlands did make it eligible.

My young actress choice last year, Sophie Nélisse, was a year off from the Oscar calendar but also a strong possibility for Monsieur Lazhar.

2011 Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Ryan Lee, Riley Giffiths Zach Mills, Gabe Basso Super 8

It figures that both the best young ensemble, and perhaps individual performance, of the past 25 years got overlooked. So they are all honored here.

2009 Bill Milner Is Anybody There?

2008 Bill Milner and Will Poulter Son of Rambow

A slight wrinkle here from my original selection. Since the Academy set precedent of awarding tandems, why not do so here as well?

2005 Dakota Fanning War of the Worlds

2004 Freddie Highmore Finding Neverland

My 2004 winner was one where I was awarding a film from 2003, due to my stand on release dates, which is different than the Academy’s. Having said that I then had to factor in both my nominees and who the Academy would be more likely to pick and decided if they chose anyone it would have been Highmore.

2003 Jeremy Sumpter Peter Pan

2001 Haley Joel Osment Artificial Intelligence: A.I.

2000 Haley Joel Osment Pay It Forward

1998 Vinicius de Oliveira Central Station

1997 Joseph Ashton The Education of Little Tree

Here’s another interesting case: my winner was in a TV film which the Academy would never honor. Then two more nominees were either shifted due to my interpretation of release date rules and one erroneously in my revisionist phase. That leaves two eligible: Dominic Zamprogna in The Boy’s Club and Joseph Ashton in The Education of Little Tree. Some people besides me actually saw the latter so I’d put that one up as a winner.

1996 Michelle Trachtenberg Harriet the Spy
Lucas Black Sling Blade

Michelle was my actual winner in 1996. Sling Blade in my awards was shifted to 1997 due to its release date. It being an Oscar nominated film make it a more likely retrospective candidate.

My Girl (1991, Columbia Pictures)

This section marks personal selections prior to my picking extemporaneous year-end awards.

1994 Elijah Wood The War

I recall watching E! and hearing there was some buzz being stirred by the cast/studio for Elijah. I knew it would never happen, but it was deserved buzz.

1992 Maxime Collin Leolo

I have since expunged them but for a time I did backtrack BAM Award to back before they started. Some of these picks reflect those findings.

1991 Anna Chlumsky My Girl

1990 Macaulay Culkin Home Alone

Say what you will, but you know if the award was around that this would have happened.

1988 Pelle Hvengaard Pelle the Conqueror

1987 Christian Bale Empire of the Sun

1986 River Phoenix Stand by Me

1983 Bertil Guve Fanny and Alexander

1982 Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

1979 Ricky Schroeder The Champ
David Bennent The Tin Drum

1972 Nell Potts The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Who Should Have Gotten One But Didn’t

No Greater Glory (1934, Columbia Pictures)

I honestly almost scrapped this section. However, looking back through young nominees I noticed the discrepancy that some young nominees did not get a Juvenile Award while there was one. So I figured while I was at it I’d list a few notable performances that didn’t get recognized. Those that “didn’t need one” since they were nominated as in their respective categories against adult competition have denoted those with an asterisk.

1956 Patty McCormack The Bad Seed*
1953 Brandon deWilde Shane*
1952 Georges Poujouly Forbidden Games
1941 Roddy McDowall How Green Was My Valley
1936 Freddie Bartholomew Little Lord Fauntleroy
1934 George Breakston No Greater Glory
1931 Jackie Cooper Skippy*

Short Film Saturday: Yuck

I believe the last time I posted a trailer it was in conjunction with another short just so it wouldn’t feel like such a cheat. Here, however, the trailer is for a short, and since the story is cool and the film looks to be of significance; I will make another exception.

This hit a number of websites the other day as it appears to be making a splash at the NYC Independent Film Festival. Quite simply, Yuck is a short documentary created by a 4th Grade student at P.S. 130 in New York about the poor state of public school lunches. Aside from the cleverness, courage and talent of this burgeoning filmmaker, the thing that is as impressive as it is scary about the film is the topic. I myself went through the New York City Public School system from grades 5 thru 12 and the most frightening thing is a lot of this food looks exactly the same, which is why I’m glad I brown-bagged it most of the time. It also makes forcing me and my classmates to sing “Food, Glorious, Food” at fifth grade graduation all the more hypocritical.

As for Yuck, you can learn more about the film on its official site.

UPDATE: The film has since hit Vimeo and been linked to me. The timing is coincidental due to the fact that I just recently saw A Place at the Table , which looks at hunger in America and discusses the budgetary constraints around school lunches.Yuck is very well done, funny and finds what I may have expected: false advertising, smoke and mirrors PR and redundant food stuffs all too often. It’s definitely worth a watch. Enjoy!

A Movie Rat Guest Post for Rupert Pupkin Speaks on Underrated Comedies

So this is a fairly big day for the Movie Rat, through sheer coincidence. Not only is my contribution for the Children in Films Blogathon up but I also have a guest post on underrated comedies for Rupert Pupkins Speaks, Brian Saur‘s blog, which is a great reflection of the fact that he’s one of the great film fans around. Go check out my list and many others in the series before me.

Children in Film Blogathon: Jackie Searl

When by chance I found that Comet Over Hollywood was doing this blogathon there were a number of options I could have selected. Quite frankly, I was a little late in noticing that it existed so some good options that I also would have liked to have covered were taken. However, I don’t regret it because whenever possible I like to go a bit outside the norm. And choosing to discuss Jackie Searl (or Searle as he was occasionally credited) does that. The first thing that sets the selection apart is that he was rarely a leading player, more often he played in support.

However, this year, somewhat in the spirit of my Neutron Star Award, I’ve had chance to find not only more range in his performances but also a rare early lead. While Jackie had a long career as a character actor after a hiatus that allowed him to transition in the age range, he was frequently cast to his type. Yes, films type actors young and old alike.

Realizing his range did hearken me back to something I heard Jack Lemmon say back on Inside the Actor’s Studio. He was recalling a conversation wherein he complained to his agent about the kinds of roles he was getting and being offered. “But I can do Shakespeare,” he protested. His agent responded simply and calmly “Yes, Jack, but other people are better at it.” That’s not to say actors shouldn’t take risks and directors haven’t done great things when casting against type, but typing happens for a reason and it’s usually because said actor is inordinately good at a particular task. With Searl, in his younger days, he was not only usually a heavy, a villain, but he had an innate ability to come off as smug and detestable, which is quite a higher calling than simply playing a villain.

Gentle Julia (1936, Fox)

What reminded me of the the Lemmon story was when I saw him in earlier roles in Poverty Row titles. One in particular, which may go down as one of my favorite new discoveries of the year is Hearts of Humanity. Here he plays the affected child, suddenly orphaned, new to the States, who is the honorable one, who sets the example for his wayward, newly-adopted brother and sacrifices himself for him. The only thing off about him at all is his Irish accent, but that wasn’t uncommon back then. Not that Searl wasn’t adept at an accent. In fact, before I decided to do this focus on him I thought his playing American was putting on an accent not when he was playing British, which he did often.

So in that film, and in other titles like One Year Later and High Gear, all of a sudden there was this complete other side to him. Granted the writing, such that it was, made him obviously perceived as a likable character, but he pulls it off with ease. Many mature, trained actors have issues not only shaking their persona but their perception. Searl was the pre-eminant, go-to jerk of the young actor set around this time (the early-to-mid-1930s). But playing the good kid was his “Shakespeare;” he was good at it but he was so much better at engendering an audience’s antipathy that he got those roles more often then not when the studio films came his way.

Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936, Selznick)

Peck’s Bad Boy is another film wherein you see him in his more usual mold, whereas Jackie Cooper, being the lead is a more rounded character and has justifications for his actions; he’s merely antagonistic. In fact, in one of his first appearances, The Sins of the Children, his type was set as his sole purpose in playing the younger version of one of the main characters was to be bratty. Slightly different from those two, but still on the unlikable end of the spectrum, was his turn as the doltish false claimant to the title in Little Lord Fauntleroy.

No Greater Glory (1934, MGM)

Of the films of his I’ve seen thus far he had one role of significant size that had an arc, and change of heart. In No Greater Glory he starts off in the vein you most often saw him: officious, haughty and bothersome. As events transpire, however, he softens. The maturation of the characters, as well as the message conveyed are among the things that make that particular film so powerful. That same year saw the release of A Wicked Woman, which implemented well his ability to cry and allowed him to play the victim. As he grew, parts that allowed him to show both sides of his ability came more frequently. In Little Tough Guy he does end up being a slimy type, but if you didn’t know who he was you’d buy the nice, rich kid act he pulls through the first few scenes, but slowly and surely he shows his character’s true colors. It may not be his most impressive turn, but there’s a confident ease to all he does that stands as a harbinger of the long-lasting ability to do character work that he found later on.

The generation of young actors that graced the silver screen when sound was in its infancy was perhaps one of the deepest in movie history. If you follow the trajectory of a lot young performers, many of whom were usually relegated to supporting roles, you could really see just how gifted a lot of these actors are – the fact that a talent like Searl’s was usually utilized as a supplement is testament to that, but it does not make his work any less effective or memorable.

Tarzan Thursday – Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Introduction

Last year the character of Tarzan celebrated his 100th year in print. A serialized version of the story first appeared in 1912. A hardcover collection of Tarzan of the Apes first appeared in 1914. Being in the middle of the Tarzan centennial period it’s an opportune time to (re)visit many of the screen renditions of the character. Previous posts in this and other series can be found here.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Here is another case wherein I honestly am quite glad to be revisiting the series chronologically. In earlier viewings I not only skipped this film but saw later ones out of order. It’s hard for me to argue that this installment is better than its predecessor, but it is rather impressive.

It does take its time easing you in. Once again it makes its title character’s presence scarce in the first 20 minutes or so. Instead, what we are introduced to is an outside party’s trip into the jungle seeking a return to the elephant graveyard and a bounty of ivory. These two white men carry a torch for Jane and it’s her first contact with them in some time. This allows her to be rather conflicted between comforts of her old life and the happy simplicity she now enjoys.

It’s also great to find this film in this set, if not in its intended form, then closer to it than previously screened. The infamously altered skinny dip of O’Sullivan is in this cut, but overall there’s a very Pre-Code take to this tale that seems a step beyond “figuraitve literalness” to being very overt as both men make their plays for her affections quite openly.

So far as Tarzan’s character goes, while he is still written fairly monosyllabically there is an arcing toward a more vocal character and the words chosen for him are chosen well; “Always is gone” and the response at the end have a great significance and are wonderful touches.

There is the introduction of music to Tarzan’s character, but on the more visceral side the fights are better staged and the blend of actual trained animals, dummies and rear projection looks to be about as seamless as the era could produce.

The villainy sets itself up early and rears its head when it matters most and thankfully on the animal side of the equation, whereas later on Cheetah serves more as a prop, comic relief and/or distraction here his presence is vital, which is another nice touch. Most second installments to series are disappointments but the second MGM Tarzan is an exception.

Bela Tarr Retrospective: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Introduction

As has become customary for winners of the Ingmar Bergman Lifetime Achievement Award at the BAM Awards, I have begun a Bela Tarr retrospective. The introduction and initial short film post can be found here and here.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

So it’s been a little longer than I wanted it to be before I returned to this series and gave my first closer look at a title but here it is.

With Werckmeister Harmonies not only do you have Tarr fully embracing his new aesthetic but you also have him creating the trajectory of his remaining films. What can be found here is the opening salvo in the ongoing dialogue of his cinema. Some of the themes both visual and otherwise start here and you can feel them echoed in later works.

For example, the film begins with a shot of a piece of wood being added to the fire on an oven. Now, as it turns out here this is just the opening frame of a lengthy tracking shot, but the motif of wood-burning ovens, flames through the grate and things of the like reappear, most notably in the Turin Horse.

The opening shot is an intricate and quite a famous one. It is perhaps the most we will hear out of our protagonist. However, interestingly this protagonist is one whom for the most part is just a vessel with through which we can be shown the story, such that it is.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

There are two significant and long speeches in the film and much like the only dialogue of consequence in The Turin Horse, the temptation to disregard it rather than trying to ferret out some semblance of meaning is compelling but erroneous. The first such extended piece of dialogue is right there in this opening tracking shot wherein Janos describes to bar full of inebriates the workings of the solar system. I read of a God Complex in one essay but the way Janos walks around observing the whale, being transfixed by it and assigning it no special significance, save for the wondrous work of God that it is, doesn’t quite mesh. I think the intent is likely to define Janos here for we will see little else throughout that does. He listens and does what he is told most of the time. Whether or not he does that to a fault is debatable, but what this is establishing is that he thinks on a simple matter and sees the wonder of it, much like a child would, and seeks to share his wonder. The barkeep lets him go on only so long before kicking him and everyone else out.

The second dialogue passage of significance is when the title the Werckmeister Harmonies is disseminated. It is a rant on musical theory on how the tuning of instruments and the regimentation of notes and octaves created something far more mechanical and less artful and organic than existed prior. On the surface it has nothing to do with anything else, save for the fact that it is this old man’s, Gyuri Eszter’s, obsession. However, it’s not the explanation that matters, but how he feels about it. He likens it to man tinkering with the work of God and here, yet again, we have a theological reference. Now, God here is being invoked in a more existential and cosmic way, rather than in a dogmatic way. It’s seemingly invoked as a larger ideal rather than a denominational claim, much like the the whale and the so-called prince, a dwarfish shadow-figure whose face is not shown threatens the natural order in the minds of many in the town, are.

As in much of Tarr’s work when he stayed shooting in black-and-white, moved the camera more and created a course the film is about decay. It’s about how we as human beings are always teetering on the edge of devolution and anarchy.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

The sound of church bells in this film, much like in Satantango are ascribed and ominous connotation; similarly to that film a broken clock in a church starts working anew rather mysteriously. Much in the way many of the people, except Janos, interpret the whale in their own way. The allegory of the whale is perhaps the most powerful in Tarr’s filmography because for as large and imposing as it is, as much of a spectacle as it is, it can’t do anything. It does not do anything and neither does the feared Prince who evokes passion and creates followers. However, the people believe they can and do and that’s what causes them to react the way they do. The people want no change, in spite of its constancy, and when something threatens that they lash out.

The order the enraged mob seeks to be restoring is an illusion. It’s as much an illusion as film is, which could be why Tarr in this instance brought in two German actors, the wide-eyed, childlike Lars Rudolph as Janos and the formerly omnipresent Fassbinder vamp Hannah Schygulla; and had them speak their lines in German and then had them dubbed, and not necessarily in a way that syncs perfectly, because something it always off.

Uncle Gyuri Eszter, in his diatribe about the Werckemeister harmonies, states that what the struggle is as follows “the octave versus the note; the natural tune versus the manmade construct; the heavenly versus mundane; human hubris versus divine gifts.” And that’s much of what the struggle in this film is.

There are still mysteries to be unraveled. Many can assume, since we did not see him through much of the assault on the hospital, that Janos was not there. However, that long and significant tracking shot ends on him looking terrified after the violence stops upon the site of the frail old man who no one wants to harm. So one can wonder did he just witness it all, unable to stop it; or was he a party to it. Similarly is the account he reads in the church one he found or one he wrote himself. The film leaves them purposely vague. However, I think it correlates more with both his passivity and his folly that he was merely a witness. What is left unsaid the end that he was inactive in the assault and not the author of what he read.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000, Facets)

When all is said and done he’s the perfect scapegoat. The society back to its so-called sense and must now restore order and the most logical scapegoat is Janos. They, meaning all the citizens, recognize neither God nor Man, so he must leave. The end of the film is uncle Gyuri Eszter going to see the whale. It is left out in the square on display where the madness began passive and immobile as it always has been.

It’s a film that’s really not about what happens, but why it happens and that answer is not nearly so nebulous people have willed it to be. They’ve assigned meanings based on their fears and ignorance and punished the guilty. In almost an eschewing of genre toward the end there is a helicopter, maybe verifying early rumors of military involvement, hovering in the sky behind Janos. It circles him quite bit, but it’s not going to try and barrel him over like the cropduster in North by Nothwest. It’ll just watch him and let him know that he’s targeted. He’s the odd man out because he embraced the whale and got the finger pointed at him and now he must go down the train tracks and out of town.

All that remains is delusion and lies, he’s told once and that’s the way it stays. It’s merely an illustration of that statement is what the film is. The people fear, they know nothing. They do not move on. The Prince is gone, the circus is burnt, the whale lies alone; an abandoned blasphemy and things go on unchanged.